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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Vanishing jetliners still possible four years after Malaysia flight 370

International requirements for new planes to broadcast their locations every minute when they're in trouble do not take effect until January 2021

Debris found on August 11, 2015 in the eastern part of Sainte-Suzanne, on France's Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean following the disappearance of  MH370. Richard Bouhet/AFP
Debris found on August 11, 2015 in the eastern part of Sainte-Suzanne, on France's Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean following the disappearance of MH370. Richard Bouhet/AFP

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, to its destination, Beijing Capital International Airport in China, prompted a slew of safety proposals meant to prevent another jetliner from inexplicably vanishing.

Yet, almost four years later, that possibility remains.

That's because international requirements for new planes to broadcast their locations every minute when they're in trouble do not take effect until January 2021, according to Bloomberg. The disappearance of Flight 370 remains the biggest mystery in modern aviation and the search to find it is the world’s longest hunt for any jet.

Last month, a new crew resumed aboard the Seabed Constructor scouring the Indian Ocean. The top Australian scientist who helped pinpoint the new search zone is hopeful the missing jet can be found within weeks.

Armed with oceanographic analyses and a high-tech search vessel, the latest search for the Boeing 777, which vanished in March 2014 carrying 239 people, kicked off late last month run by the private exploration firm Ocean Infinity, in the hope of solving one of aviation's most enduring mysteries, AFP reported. The US company resumed searching with a promise of as much as $70 million from the Malaysian government if successful.

Hopes that the new mission might finally find the wreckage have also been raised by the high-tech tools being used.

Seabed Constructor carries eight autonomous drones equipped with sonar and cameras that can operate in depths of up to 6,000 metres.

They are "free flying" vehicles, allowing them to move deeper and collect higher quality data than the tethered drones used in the earlier search. This means the priority search areas are likely to be scoured and the data collected much faster.

In an era where people can track their iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices in real time, the aviation industry, the world's most-advanced transportation sector, still isn't obligated to do the same for aircraft carrying about 4 billion passengers a year. And that one-minute rule doesn’t apply to the current fleet of 23,500 passenger planes and the thousands more joining them in the next three years - mostly in Asia, Bloomberg said.

“You can’t say MH370 won’t ever happen again, because it will,” said David Stupples, a professor of electronic and radio systems at City, University of London.

“Until 2040 or 2050, there’s going to be a large number of aircraft flying around that don’t have that tracking system fitted.”

A gradual tightening starts in November, when airlines must track planes every 15 minutes under regulations adopted by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Some carriers already meeting this requirement include Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airways.

Still, a jet cruising at 500 knots (925kph) an hour that disappears between 15-minute pings creates a potential search zone of about 170,000 square kilometres. That's equivalent to about twice the size of the UAE.

There would be little chance of finding survivors in time, especially in the open ocean, and the sunken wreckage might escape detection for years, said Geoffrey Dell, a safety scientist at Central Queensland University in Australia who has been an air-safety investigator since 1979.

By comparison, the search zone for a plane that crashed between one-minute pings would be about 748 sq km - an area 227 times smaller.

“The industry takes strategic steps to ensure safety but moves very deliberately,” said Tom Schmutz, the chief executive of Flyht Aerospace Solutions. “Operators have typically pushed back on change because it can conflict with operational profits.”

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Calgary-based Flyht sells off-the-shelf technology that tracks planes by satellite. Its Automated Flight Information Reporting System is about the size of a briefcase, costs less than $60,000 and can pinpoint a plane's airborne location every 20 seconds.

About 1,800 aircraft have installed the product, Mr Schmutz said.

The slow rollout of more-frequent tracking comes during a period of sustained growth for the global aviation industry, especially in Asia.

MH370 disappeared with 239 people on board. Experts mapped the Boeing 777's random route over the Indian Ocean after picking through its hourly data hook-ups with a satellite.

Only a few pieces of wreckage washed up in Africa, and no bodies were recovered.

ICAO said it “moved quite rapidly” to develop new tracking intervals after the MH370 crash, and those rules contain an incentive for airlines to retrofit in-service craft to enable one-minute reporting.

Under the rules taking effect in 2021, a plane would switch to one-minute tracking automatically when systems detected it was in distress because of turbulence, mechanical difficulties or an unexplained change in course, such as during a hijacking or if the crew became unconscious.

Pilots couldn't turn the system off after it activates automatically, ICAO said. The system would deactivate itself once the plane was flying safely again.

However, a pilot could turn off the system if it was manually activated.

The challenges tied to minute-by-minute tracking include adding computing power and internet bandwidth to process larger volumes of data. The tighter system also may require reserving more space on the flurry of satellites being launched to satisfy demands for constant internet connectivity.

The almost seven-year lag that will exist between the disappearance of MH370 and the institution of one-minute tracking shows the struggle going on within the industry.

Airlines haven’t immediately rolled out tamper-proof tracking technology on every commercial aircraft - potentially at a cost of more than $1 billion - partly because an event like MH370 is so rare.

“It always comes back to a commercial decision,” said Mr Dell, a former safety manager at Qantas.

“Does it really justify it when that accident is not going to happen in your lifetime - statistically? It takes something like MH370 to change people’s thinking.”

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